If this Vauxhall Carlton is not high on your list of the great sports saloons, Andrew Frankel believes you should think again
You will remember the Lotus Carlton, all 377bhp and 175mph of it. It was the ultimate supercar saloon: with four adults on board and a fortnight’s shopping from Sainsbury’s in the boot it could put clean air between itself and a Testarossa. It would spin its wheels in fourth if the road was damp and; at 150mph, the engine turned at just 3000rpm.
You may wonder, then, what a mere Vauxhall Carlton is doing here. This has no twin-turbo motor, nor a Lotus-fettled chassis. It will not even do 150mph, let alone cruise at such speeds. It’s here because this Carlton is a forgotten hero, a mass-produced family saloon with an unlikely spark of magic which became one of the few affordable cars successfully to combine rare civility and true driver appeal.
Its heart was its straight-six 2926cc motor. Based on Vauxhall’s old iron block powerplant, its none-too-secret weapon lay within its twin cam, 24-valve cylinder head which pushed its output up from 177bhp to a Sierra Cosworth-rivalling 204bhp, while a then innovative split induction system provided 1991b ft of torque at an even 3600rpm.
There was nothing particularly clever within the chassis, just struts at the front and semi-trailing arms coping at the back; nor did Vauxhall fed the need to bolt steam-roller wheels at each corner; delightfully unflashy 7in forged rims covered with modest 205/65 section tyres were deemed to be enough for this beautifully proportioned saloon.
And so it proved. When I gained its acquaintance, early in 1990, I was shocked to see the ease with which this allegedly humdrum family cruiser would drive away from the then saloon car king, BMW’s 535i Sport. It mattered not what measure you used, flat-out acceleration, acceleration in each gear, top speed… the Vauxhall was swifter. I always regard the mark of a quick road car to be an ability to reach 100mph in under 20sec. The Vauxhall, despite a slow gearchange and unremarkable traction managed this in 18.5sec en route to a top speed of 148mph.
Better even than the breadth of this performance was its nature. Gone were the gruff rumblings of the engine’s single-cam predecessor to be replaced by a snarl as sweet and smooth as that emanating from beneath the bonnet of the rapidly receding 535i. There was a small hole in the powerband at about 4000rpm when a butterfly valve would open, uniting the two halves of the hitherto split intake but the extra kick waiting on the far side made this momentary hiccough well worth the wait.
What Vauxhall had done to create a car quicker and as sweet as BMW’s feted titan (not to mention many thousands cheaper too) was worthy of praise, particularly as there was little indeed among its unexceptional ranks, lesser hatches and saloons to suggest that Vauxhall had much of a talent for such automotive sophistication.
The best news, however, was reserved for those who found their fun in corners, not straight lines. If it was difficult to believe Vauxhall could create a powerplant to rival the best in the market, it was scarcely credible that, at the same time. it would equip it with a chassis of commensurate ability. There was nothing in any Nova, Astra or Cavalier that suggested at all that Vauxhall cared much about handling. Even those equipped with formidable powerplants were found lacking when the road started to twist.
But the Carlton, this Carlton at least, was not like that. The first surprise was a level of grip which seemed entirely inappropriate for a four-door saloon carrying close on 1500kg on such modest tyres. I remember a two-clay charge through Wales with the Carlton and a BMW 535i Sport (wearing huge 240/45 tyres) and time after time, the Vauxhall provided more grip from less rubber. It rode with not quite the fluency of its new-found rival but over crests and dips we were left once more coming to terms with the news that this Vauxhall was showing the BMW how to get the job done.
Best of all, the Carlton would slide with the best of them. To this day, you’ll not find another saloon with a more steely resistance to understeer than this Carlton and, in this respect at least, it showed even its big banger brother, the Lotus Carlton, a thing or two. If the road and conditions were right, it could be driven in safety at simply absurd angles of attack.
Of course the Carlton GSi3000 24v story is not entirely strewn with rose petals. Though its dynamics challenged and, indeed, largely outshone those of the equivalent BMW of the day, its static qualities were, to say the least, less impressive. Even by the standards of the day, the interior was something of a mess, with big switches and big dials with fat numbers giving a childishly unsophisticated cabin environment, while the materials employed both inside and out never looked likely to approach those used by BMW.
Then again, nor did its price. Back in 1990, Vauxhall wanted 121,690 for its Carlton while BMW charged 129,445 for its sporting 535i. And not only was the Carlton quicker, more fun to drive and, to these eyes at least, better looking to boot, it also provided ample room inside for five adults which was more than anyone seemed likely to say about the decidedly cramped BMW.
In the end, the Carlton died in obscurity, the headlines having been hogged by its explosively powerful big brother. It was an inevitable fate for a car which never advertised too loudly its manifold abilities. The Lotus Carlton, of course, passed into saloon car legend and remains to this day the fastest production saloon ever made. And, I have no doubt, its vaunted place in history is entirely deserved. But I also know which of these Carltons, at the time, was a better car for the money. It was the one not wearing the Lotus badges.
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